Interior Design can be a competitive business. It is no secret that one designer may begin a project, only to have it completed by another, including a former employee. As a result, Designers need to be vigilant about protecting both their designs and relationships. The case of Hunn v. Dan Wilson Homes, Inc., 13-11297, 14-10365, 114 qUSPQ2d 2002 (5th Cir 2015) offers several lessons for Designers.
Ben Lack, who was employed as a draftsman at the Plaintiff architectural design firm Marshal Hunn Designs (HD), resigned from his job while in the middle of a project for the firm’s client, Dan Wilson Homes, Inc. (DWH). After Lack’s resignation, Lack was hired by DWH to complete the project. HD sued Lack and DWH alleging that they secretly agreed in advance with DWH to cut HD out of the business. The court ruled in favor of Lack (and DWH) finding they never entered into any “secret agreement” and there was no merit to the eight other legal claims, including copyright infringement and false designation of origin under the Lanham Act.
DWH is a custom home construction company. DWH contracted with HD to produce plans for four (4) custom homes. DWH wanted the plans drafted by Lack. Lack was the only HD employee who worked on the four custom homes for DWH and HD’s only representative at all weekly meetings with respective homeowners.
While the home construction projects were still underway, Lack informed HD of his desire to resign. Lack also requested by email that a friend of his convert some of the project files into AutoCAD versions. This conversion was required because Lack maintained his own copy of AutoCAD software on his home computer.
HD permitted draftsman to take home files because they often worked on projects on their own home computers as well as work computers. Lack had permission to work on the files at home.
After Lack’s employment ended, HD ask Lack to return physical files related to the project, but not the AutoCAD files.
The relationship between DWH and HD deteriorated. DWH offered to pay HD a prorated amount for the work completed up to the date of termination of Lack. HD refused. DWH later tendered payment for the full contract price, even covering items and services that had not been completed.
HD declined to accept payment and responded by filing a complaint alleging eight causes of action: 1) copyright infringement, false designation of origin under the Lanham Act, 3) breach of contract, 4) breach of fiduciary duty, 5) breach of covenant not to solicit, 6) tortious interference, 7) violation of the computer fraud and abuse act, and 8) conspiracy.
During his deposition, Lack indicated that he believed he would have had at least two more weeks of employment after tendering his notice of resignation, and that he would be able to complete the plans. DWH also believed that Lack would complete the plans under the employment of HD.
The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants Lack and DWH on all claims. HD appealed the judgment. The appellate court affirmed the District Court’s decision.
The District Court found that there was no breach of contract because DWH’s only duty was to pay for the services which he offered to do.
The District Court found there was no breach of fiduciary duty because any duty terminated upon termination of employment, and Lack did not disclose trade secrets or any confidential information. Although HD alleged that the AutoCAD files were confidential and proprietary information, the court held that they were not because HD had disclosed them to Lack without restriction.
The District Court found that there was no violation of the computer fraud and abuse act because Lack never exceeded his authority. HD routinely permitted employees to take files home and put them on their personal computers.
Although Lack had a non-complete clause in his at-will employment agreement, the Court found there was no violation because the clause was unenforceable. The clause states “in the event you leave or are separated from Hunn Designs’ employment, you agreed not to solicit, either directly or indirectly, business from, or undertake with any customers serviced by you while the employment of Hunn Designs, or any other Hunn Designs customers for a period of two years thereafter.”
The District Court held the non-compete clause was unenforceable do to a lack of independent consideration. Continued employment in at-will agreement is illusory.
The District Court ruled that even if the drafts of house designs were copyrightable, there was no violation of copyright because of the existence of an implied license authorizing use of the designs.
The court found particularly interesting “the fact that the home owners themselves essentially came up with their design ideas and sought to have those self designed homes built [after their ideas were] placed into the drafting stage.”
The District Court cited the 7th Circuit case of I.A.E., Inc. v. Shaver 74 F.3d 768 (7th Cir. 1996) for the proposition that an architect in a similar situation had granted an implied license. Even though the architect in Shaver testified that he did not intend for use of the drawings past the drafting stage unless he was the architect on the project, this was not supported by the record.
The court found there was no violation of the Lanham ask prohibition against false designation of origin, because there was no evidence that use of the plans had a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce, as required by the Lanham Act.
Based on my review of the court’s opinion, there are potentially three (3) things the Plaintiff (Hunn) could have done differently that may have changed the outcome of this case. First, have a clear, written policy in place defining what constitutes trade secrets and other proprietary information and proper methods for handling those. Second, have policies restricting how and when employees may take company property and files home, and addressing storage and return of property and files. Third, create and enforce clear conditions for access, distribution and use of drafts, proposals, files and other works-in-progress to avoid inadvertently granting an implied license to third parties such as contractors, consultants or clients.
*THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE*
*CONSULT A QUALIFIED ATTORNEY ABOUT YOUR SPECIFIC SITUATION*